Until recently, I hadn’t managed to read anything by 2014 Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano, but I was lucky enough to be sent two of his books a couple of months back by Text Publishing. You may have already seen my review of the first, Little Jewel – now, after the ‘interruption’ of Women in Translation Month (and a few other books I wanted to get to), I’ve finally found time for the second one. While there is an obvious similarity in styles and content, today’s choice is a little different to the previous work – this one is very much a book of the night…
Paris Nocturne (translated by Phoebe Weston-Evans) is a story of the past, with an unnamed narrator casting his mind back to an eventful night thirty years earlier. While walking along minding his own business, he is suddenly clipped by a car, tumbling to the ground. Although his injuries turn out not to be too serious, he is taken along to a hospital in the company of the driver, whose name, Jacqueline Beausergent, he hears while waiting to be treated. Then he is sedated in preparation for treatment, and when he wakes up, the mysterious woman, and her gruff companion, have vanished.
Discharged, with a pile of money as compensation for not pressing charges, the narrator decides he wants to find the mysterious Jacqueline, haunted by the memory of her face:
“I lay still and let myself drift along in the river’s current. Her face came to me with total precision, like a large identikit photograph: the even arches of her eyebrows, clear eyes, blonde hair, the cuts on her forehead, cheekbones and the hollow of her cheek.”
p.7 (Text Publishing, 2015)
Part of the impetus for his search is a simple desire to see the woman again, but it also has a lot to do with how similar she looks to a woman who looked after him in his childhood. Thus begins the man’s wanderings through Paris in a slightly Quixotic quest – by night, of course.
The book’s original title is Accident Nocturne, and the change in title widens the scope of the book, with the focus of the novel(la) on the man’s nightly wanderings through the city:
“I have to point out what I was doing there, even if I have to come back to it in more detail one day. Following the example of a French writer known as the ‘nocturnal spectator’, I frequented certain neighbourhoods in Paris. In the streets at night, I had the impression I was living another life, a more captivating one, or quite simply, that I was dreaming another life.” (p.28)
These journeys continue throughout the book, showing us the Paris of the night. All is calm, peaceful and deserted – perfect for a man looking for something he’s not even sure he’s lost.
The accident is a bizarre, unsettling event, but it proves to be most important as a catalyst for change for a young man living life without a purpose. The narrator describes the event as the impetus he needed to stop drifting through his days, using it as an opportunity to reflect on other aspects of his past, such as lost friends and family members. His central belief is that if he can find Jacqueline, everything else will somehow fall into place.
The more we read, the more the book focuses on the past, with the story returning to the narrator’s childhood and adolescence. In addition to reminiscing about a time spent drifting around cafés, listening to lectures given by a shifty philosophy lecturer, the narrator gradually reveals more about his relationship with his father, one which sounds more than a little dysfunctional. Then there’s the clear memory of an accident involving a dog, with the face of a woman constantly coming to mind. Much as he doubts the thought, he can’t quite bring himself to believe that it’s not that of Jacqueline Beausergent…
There is a plot, of sorts, but that’s not really what Paris Nocturne‘s about. This is a book of mood and atmosphere, a story of the big city and the lonely people wandering around its streets. In this regard there’s a definite link to Little Jewel, a book which has the same excellent depiction of the prevailing sense of ennui.
What also becomes clear very quickly when entering Modiano’s world is the role Paris plays in it – in truth, each copy of his books should come with maps supplied (or a GPS app for your phone). On almost every page, our guide wanders around the city, and so do we, following him through the streets and quartiers. In fact, in Paris Nocturne the narrator even does this himself, taking out a map and tracing his routes with red ink. If ever there was a literary city tour waiting to happen…
The other main theme of Modiano’s work, though, is that of memory, and Paris Nocturne continues in this vein, with the text actually constructed as a memory of a memory. It’s important to remember that the narrator is three decades removed from the events he relates, and the careful reader will be constantly asking themself why he’s dwelling on his nocturnal perambles. These memories are described fairly simply, with a predominance of short, simple sentences (true for both the books I’ve read) – while the content has echoes of another writer obsessed with memories, Javier Marías, the way Modiano goes about dissecting his actions is very, very different. I have to say I’m one for more complex language, but I suspect many will prefer Modiano’s style 🙂
Paris Nocturne was a very quick read for me (an hour or so), but enjoyable all the same. It’s a story that succeeds on how it proceeds rather than where it’s going, a tale of looking for people, with little hope of success:
“…Paris is big..You have to be careful…People like us end up getting lost.” (p.143)
Occasionally, just occasionally, though, you do end up finding what you’re looking for. Whether Modiano’s what you’ve been looking for is something you’ll have to decide for yourself 🙂